was an awkward Thanksgiving.
As a first-year college student, I’d been invited up
to the grandparents’ to play Pilgrim and Indian. Alone
on the East Coast, I accepted. But, getting there wasn’t
I quickly bummed a ride from a dorm-mate, but unfortunately
he had no interest in visiting Gambrills, Maryland. Somewhere
outside the nation’s capital, I had no choice but to
break out my thumb.
The ride came with time, and I found myself crawling into
a beaten 1980s Ford Mustang. For the next hour, I would share
a portion of my life with a man I knew only as Ted. Ted’s
passions went to menthol smokes and bands like Anthrax and
Ratt. That ride was all about fast cars, blonde women with
long legs and canned beer.
Nonetheless, Ted eased my load and shared the ride. He told
me of his life in the somewhat average town of Glen Burnie.
And he had opened his heart and offered me help in a time
when I was in need. I rolled into Thanksgiving late, sweating
menthol and road weary. Things only began to get stranger.
My grandma’s growing senility assigned me the name
of Joe. Grandpa was never much of a talker anyway, and the
rest of the relations were complete strangers. Sitting in
the corner with my plate of turkey, I started missing the
Over a slice of squash pie, the scene shifted. A dapper great
uncle of my dad’s approached me. Hearing of my passage,
he immediately set into tales of hitching. Looking regal in
his tweed suit, he made one thing clear – he had never
lifted his thumb in his life. But somehow, he understood the
phenomenon intimately, and, for the first time, I heard talk
of my dad’s thumbing exploits.
With great envy, he spoke of my father over a brandy, elaborating
on my then 22-year-old dad’s yearly ritual, a crosscountry
venture in search of snow. Armed only with his thumb and a
backpack, he set out on the highway and hitched clear from
the Chesapeake Bay to Aspen. In the spring, he returned via
the same route. His nights were spent in fields adjoining
the highway. His days were spent communing with strangers.
Those trips had filled a void in my great uncle’s life.
Many years later, my friend Tim told a different tale about
the romance of the side of the road. Tim was furious after
spending an afternoon with his right thumb and a blown tire.
Heading south on 550, he had just dropped down into Bondad
when his left rear tire exploded. The pleasure cruise rapidly
ended, and Tim was living the highway nightmare – trying
to control a reckless ton of steel, plastic and vinyl.
He got his car over onto the shoulder, but had a hard time
getting another to do the same and spent an eternity trying
to get back into town, enduring the humiliation of waving
to passing cars with an outstretched thumb. Minutes became
hours. And naturally, Tim soured as all manner of car and
person blew by him blind to his plight.
I remember experiencing a similar load of frustration hitchhiking
from Telluride to Norwood nearly two decades ago. The highway
distinctly changes character at one point, splitting at a
nameless, abandoned auto dealership. One arm travels to the
resort mecca/bastion of progressive thought. The other reaches
a rural ranching community.
This situation usually made for a two-leg hitch, and ironically,
on one leg the thumb was next to useless. Contrary to what
you might believe, Telluride was no hitchhiker’s paradise,
and as years went by, rides became harder to come by. But,
reality veered at the crossroads. After pointing it toward
Norwood, rides were instant. On one occasion, a woman sporting
a bee-hive, a domestic V-8, Patsy Cline on the radio and a
National Rifle Association bumper sticker picked me up.
I mentioned my Telluride thumb blues and how grateful I was
to be on the other side. She answered me simply. “Yep,
we still trust over here.”