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The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking

The pros and cons of hitchhiking are obvious. It is cheap, but dangerous. It is convenient, but unpredictable. It takes away the hassle of dealing with car repairs and replaces it with the hassle of standing in the rain, waiting hours for a ride. I hitchhiked over 20,000 miles when I was young, sleeping under bridges and fighting off homosexual predators, from Canada to Mexico. It was interesting, and cheap, but I wouldn't consider hitchhiking as a primary mode of travel ever again.

There are certain times and circumstances when I still put out my thumb, however. Most recently in the mountains of Ecuador. My wife and I were in Las Cajas National Park, hiking along ancient Incan rock walls, and we missed the bus back to Cuenca. There may have been another one coming, but we didn't want to wait until dark to find out, so out went the thumb. "Ir a dedo" is the expression in Ecuador; to "go by finger." The third vehicle to pass, a meat delivery truck, stopped, and we were in Cuenca in an hour. The driver refused to take any money, so we left him with a large avocado.

If you do try hitchhiking in other countries, ask the locals about it. In Ecuador, for example, I've been told that you can't get a ride in the southern part of the country. It is also customary to at least offer something for the ride.

Hitchhiking in the United States

As I said, the pros and cons of hitchhiking are obvious, and the balance is on the side of the "cons." It is more difficult now than ever to rely on getting a ride when you put out your thumb. It is still legal in most places in the United States, however, as long as you stay off the freeways. At what point along the entrance ramp to the freeway you cross the legal line is open to the interpretation of the police officer that tickets you.

When I was sixteen, I was hitchhiking across the country, and doing fine until I was stuck all day on a highway in Montana. Finally a nice old lady picked me up and told me why I was having trouble. A few years before, somebody picked up a guy on that stretch of highway, and the police found the hitchhiker cooking the driver's heart over a campfire that evening. The lady also told me about the UFO that had sucked up her trailer in it's "magnetic beam," and other wild stories. Oddly enough, all the stories have turned out to be true, except for the UFO one. It was ten years later when I caught an item on the news about the cannibal hitchhiker. They were releasing him, now that he was sane again. So you can see why drivers may be hesitant to pick up hitchhikers.

There is one circumstance when you may find it useful to hitchhike, even if you never have before. That is when you need to get back to your car after backpacking in the mountains. Because you may want to come out of the wilderness in a different location than where you entered, and there probably won't be taxis there, hitchhiking could be the only option you have to get back to the trail head where you left your car. In fact, this is relatively safe and easy, in these circumstances. National Parks, such as Yellowstone, are almost the only places we've even seen hitchhikers lately, and drivers are comfortable picking up people that are obviously backpackers.

Hitchhiking Safely

If you do decide to hitchhike, follow some basic safety guidelines. First, be prepared for any possible circumstances. Have rainwear, in case you have no way to get out of the rain. Carry food and water, since you never know how long you'll be waiting for a ride. Have warm clothing if cold weather is possible. Always have a highway map with you.

Use your intuition and common sense when hitchhiking, and don't be afraid to say no to an offer of a ride. I probably shouldn't have taken a ride with that cocaine-snorting guy in Idaho when I was sixteen. As it turns out, maybe my intuition wasn't so bad. Despite his habit, he turned out to be a decent guy, and brought me hundreds of miles closer to home.

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