An excerpt from Keep Going
On July 10, 1971, I started a hitchhiking trip from Maryland to points west with my friend, Erich Caron. By coincidence, six years later, I got married on that same date. In between, a helluva lot went on: I finished my last two years of high school, spent four years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and wooed and won my wife. I held many titles: soccer player, class president, Kentucky Fried Chicken cook, editor-in-chief of the school paper, Christmas tree farmhand, Eagle Scout, college student, McDonald’s crew member, fraternity brother, U.S. Marine Corps officer candidate, Capitol Hill staffer.
But the constant throughout, and the title which proved my favorite, began that July day: hitchhiker. By the time I entered my senior year in high school, I had hitchhiked 20,000 miles and traveled coast to coast four times by thumb. By my wedding day, the total exceeded 42,000 miles.
My high school and college experiences weren’t particularly momentous or notable. I did the things that busy students do: study, work, and participate in extracurricular activities.
But out on the road, I had no peer. My hitchhiking persona was like another life I led. As a college freshman, I didn’t think twice about hitchhiking from UNC to Maryland in a weekend to see my girlfriend — a 700-mile round trip — something I did over 20 times (though not always for the same girlfriend). North on Friday afternoon, like any college kid heading home for the weekend. Back to school on Sunday.
In the summer of 1974, I spent a couple months working in Chapel Hill and then thought, “Hey, I could use a vacation.” So I hitchhiked to Seattle, back to Maryland, then to Chapel Hill in a 6,500 mile trip over the course of a month. You know, just a little sight-seeing trip with some visits to relatives and friends thrown in.
When my parents moved to Iowa, I didn’t go home often but my thumb was still the ticket. I hitchhiked there from North Carolina or back to UNC five different times, a 1,000 mile trip.
This memoir is about the cross-country hitchhiking trips that started it all, when I was 16 and Erich was 17. In 1971, we circumnavigated the United States, traveling through 21 states and two Canadian provinces while visiting nine different national parks. In 1972, we hitchhiked from Maryland to Alaska and back.
As I review my trip journals over 40 years later, I’ve gained a little perspective. In 1971, Erich and I thought a hitchhiking trip would be a fun thing to try, and it was a logical step in a progression of hiking and camping adventures. Our trip to Alaska during the summer of 1972 was one more step. Because I was in high school at that time, hitchhiking became my summer job, the way other kids might lifeguard at the pool. In college, it was my preferred mode of transportation — a means of getting where I wanted to go cheaply and quickly. Well, most of the time.
Now I realize that those trips and my other hitchhiking excursions were the transformative experiences of my life. Traipsing all over the country to places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise, as well as the hours and hours of conversations with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, shaped the young man I was in the 1970s and the grown man I became. You could say I grew up hitchhiking, and hitchhiking made me grow up.
Hitchhiking made me an eternal optimist. It built my confidence. And perhaps most importantly, it taught me to trust my instincts. My four children can tell you that the mantra of my advice when they were growing up was: Always follow your instincts.
Hitchhiking turned me into a guy who never gave up, a guy who could think his way out of any challenging situation. It made me a perceptive listener, and through listening, gave me real insight into people from all walks of life. It bludgeoned patience into me, yet at the same time it instilled in me intolerance for the absurdities of life that often rears its head as impatience.
My philosophy of life stems from hitchhiking. A few years ago, I read a book that encouraged readers to articulate a short-hand philosophy of life. In just a few minutes, I had mine in two words: Keep going. Hitchhiking taught me to always keep going.
When I have shared hitchhiking stories with others over the years, the response is always immediate and universal: “Well, you certainly couldn’t do that today. It was a lot safer back then.”
In the early 1970s, hitchhiking was far more common than in 2016, but I received as many safety lectures and cautions from friends and family as any self-respecting parent can dish out today. Hitchhiking was not seen as somehow safer. I can’t count the times we got a ride when the first words out of the driver’s mouth were: “You’re lucky I picked you up before some creep stopped for you instead.”
Maybe, but I don’t think it was luck alone. Like anything, hitchhiking can be done safely or unsafely. We were attuned to the risks, and we took them seriously. While we didn’t accept every ride, we discovered that this nation is populated by wonderful, caring people who would go out of their way to help a perfect stranger. Today we hear stories about such generosity of spirit all the time, but we have a tendency to think they are the exception rather than the rule. My experiences — 42,000 miles worth of rides from total strangers — taught me that benevolent strangers are not the exception; they are the rule.
Hitchhiking — like any number of human activities — is a risk. For me, it was a risk worth taking where the return far exceeded the danger.
We left home carrying no cell phone or credit card, certain in the knowledge that in the weeks ahead we wouldn’t know a soul. Our ability to get to our destinations and get home again would be completely dependent on the good will of strangers.
Call us naïve. Call us misguided. But we left home with utter confidence that we would succeed.
Our summer trips occurred during what might be termed the heyday of hitchhiking in the early 1970s. The country was populated with hitchhikers from coast-to-coast: bell-bottomed hippies seeking their personal nirvanas, people down on their luck looking for their next opportunity, travelers getting from place to place.
And two teenagers hoping to backpack in some of their nation’s wonderful national parks.